It was Nigel’s birthday in July and we decided to go away to celebrate but couldn’t decide where; we turned to our old faithful site http://www.skyscanner.net and did a search of where the cheapest flights were on the dates we wanted to go and where we hadn’t been and came up with Bosnia! After some online research we decided the cheapest option was to fly to Tuzla and get the bus to Sarajevo. The first reactions from friends and family when we said we were going there were ‘is it safe?’ and ‘don’t get shot!’ so we did some research and felt pretty safe as the war had finished 20 years ago; so we went ahead and booked a fun filled 3 night break.
We set off on our evening Wizz air flight from London Luton to Tuzla. The flight took just over three hours and was pretty non-eventful. The most annoying thing about Wizz is that they started to charge for hand luggage over a certain size so we bought two bags especially from eBay for £16.99 which fit their exact dimensions (42 x 32 x 25 cm) and saved ourselves paying the £40 odd pound fee. They have since decided to scrap this charge and as of 30th October 2017 you can carry on a free bag of 55 x 40 x 23 cm dimensions grrrrr. Our flights, however, were very reasonable at £61 return each so we were happy with the price.
Upon arrival the airport was tiny and we were later to discover that this was a converted ex-military airport. Nevertheless, it was quite busy upon exit and we managed to find our taxi driver we prebooked through our accommodation. He was a nice man and happy to talk to us about the war and religion; the two topics we had read you shouldn’t talk to Bosnians about! We paid him the agreed 12 euros and arrived at our accommodation at 23.30 pm. We had booked a place called Pansion Centar; there weren’t many choices of accommodation in Tuzla as it wasn’t a big tourist destination but we were impressed by the reviews and the price (£32) so we were happy to give it a go! We were greeted warmly by our host who was waiting for us and checked in. The room was clean and tidy and we immediately felt welcome. Despite the late hour it was lively in the streets outside so we headed on out to explore.
We went to the shop next door to the Pansion to get some cigarettes and gave them a 10 euro note. Despite our language skills, the staff went out of their way to help us and we got our change in Bosnian marks. We realised we were going to need to get some marks as not everywhere was going to take euros. One mark is approximately 45p and we got loads of change. Just round the corner we found a lively bar called Sloboda and ordered a couple of vodkas and sat down enjoying the ambience. The music was kind of techno music we hadn’t heard for a long time in the UK and we noticed a lot of people were just drinking in the streets. The drinks were very reasonable here and we still had plenty of change from our 10 euros. We finished our drinks and could hear quite loud music like a concert nearby so we decided to go and see where it was coming from. A Google search informed us there was a festival called Kaleidoscop on and so we headed in the direction of the music to check it out!
On our way we discovered the main square which included a fountain and then located a big crowd in a field over the road. It appears the concert/festival was free to enter and there were hundreds and hundreds of people singing and dancing. It was only right that we should try and join in the festival!. We had a couple of Pan Beers which were 3 marks each (£1.35) and shared some sort of Bosnian hotdog for 3.5 marks (£1.60). There was a band on who were very popular called Van Gogh who we discovered were from Belgrade and formed in 1986 and proved very popular with the locals. We stayed for a while but were a little tired so headed back to the Pansion amazed that despite our evening out we hadn’t even spent that 10 euros we started with.
The next morning we woke up and went down for our breakfast which was included in our room rate. We were really impressed by the service and the quality of the breakfast! The host was so helpful he couldn’t do enough for us and was happy to help us plan our transport as well as serving us an amazing breakfast and coffee.
We had a bus booked from the station to Sarajevo at 12:30 so we headed round the corner back to check out the centre of Tuzla. The host had booked us a taxi for 12 noon so we had a couple of hours to look around. We were a little sad we only had the one night here due to the hospitality.
Heading out of the town centre we were able to see some of the derelict buildings from the time of the war; there was a shell attack on 25th May 1995 which left 71 dead and 240 injured. Despite this however Tuzla was one of the least affected areas.
What was clear was that the centre of Tuzla had been rebuilt and was now a thriving community with great potential for ongoing tourism. It was a lovely little town and we really liked the friendliness of the locals who went out of their way to speak to us. There had obviously been great efforts to rebuild Tuzla and there was now an array of restaurants and bars to choose from.
We headed back to the Pansion and said a sad goodbye to our host before getting in our taxi which was waiting for us bound for the bus station. We had prebooked our bus tickets online from http://www.getbybus.com. It cost 14 euros each return from Tuzla to Sarajevo and the journey was approximately 3.5 hours. We got to the bus station paying 6 marks for the taxi and waited for our bus. The bus station itself was ok with snack bars and vending machines but we did have a short delay. We headed off about 45 minutes late excited for our arrival in Sarajevo.
We arrived at the bus station at 16:00 and grabbed a taxi to our accommodation M’Ali rooms which are located right in the heart of Sarajevo Old town near Bascarsija; Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the historical and cultural centre of the city. We were able to locate the rooms easily with the guidance of our taxi driver and were greeted by Fedai. I had been really impressed with the helpful communication I had had with him prior to our arrival and he was really warm and welcoming on our arrival. He sat and had a drink and showed us to our room which was really clean and modern. The apartment was comfortable and we could help ourselves to tea, coffee and other items in the kitchen. It was £64 for our two-night stay which was very good for the quality of the apartment and hospitality. Additionally, Fedai also added me on WhatsApp so I could get in touch if we had any problems.
We headed off out into Sarajevo to have a look around and were really impressed by what we saw. It is a bustling city with people of all religions and nationalities with many restaurants, bars and shisha bars as well as copious shops and mosques.
We were both aware how little we actually knew about the history of the war in Bosnia and stumbled across a museum which informed us more about the conflict; especially the massacre in Srebrenica. Due to a number of people who died it is known as a genocide as 8000 mainly men and boys died in and around the town in 1995. This was really quite harrowing to read about and watch the videos of and neither of us could believe this happened only 20 years ago. The war itself was from 1992-1995 but despite knowing this it was unclear exactly what the cause of the war was and something we endeavoured to try and understand during our time here.
As today was Nigel’s birthday we decided to lighten the mood somewhat and look for a bar to have a drink or two. We discovered what I would describe as ‘shisha alley’ where there were several shisha bars in one area but we also found a few bars in the same area where Nigel had his celebratory cocktail – cheers!
Despite the fact it was July it was still really quite chilly in the evening in Sarajevo so we gave up trying to get warm and headed back to our apartment as we had an early start the next morning for our day trip to Herzegovina.
The meeting point was a few metres from our hotel and we presented there at 8am sharp for our day trip. We had booked a Herzegovina day tour and were excited to see what lie ahead. Herzegovina is said to be the ‘Mediterranean’ part of Bosnia with an obvious temperature difference from Sarajevo. We set off with our guide and came to a halt at our first stop, Konjic. Konjic is a town on the Neretva river and is one of the oldest settlements in Bosian thought to date back 4000 years. Also in Konjic is the famous Tito’s Bunker, a secret bunker built at the cost of 3million which would enable 350 people to live and work underground for 6 months in the event of a nuclear attack.
After a short stop here we headed on to Jablanica where we were shown the broken train bridge which once stood over the river Neretva. This was a scene from the second world war when the Axis Powers were in harsh competition with the Yugoslavian Partisans and knowing that defeat was imminent they blew the bridge up.
After this stop we had approximately an hour and a half drive before we reached Počitelj in the Capljina municipality. Počitelj is a walled town built around an amphitheatre and located on the left-hand side of the main road towards Mostar. The town is thought to date back to 1444 within the Ottoman Empire. As of 1996, it was named as one of the worlds most endangered cultural heritage sites.
Visible in the above pictures is the Sahat Kulat, the bell tower close to the river, the Hajja Alija mosque which was built in 1563 and the Kula, the silo-shaped fort overlooking the village. The Gavrakanpetanović house was built in the 16th century and housed the captains of Počitelj who were from the Gavrakanpetanović household.
The next stop on our tour was the Dervish house or Blagaj Tekke which was built in the 15th century and is still open to the public today. It is located in the town of Blagaj which stands on the edge of the Bisce Plain. It was a really lovely place situated on the spring of the Buna River. We visited the house and stopped for lunch with a view of the spring.
We moved on to our final stop of the day and the one which I was looking forward to, Mostar. Mostar is famous for its bridge Stari Most that was built in the Ottoman Era and designed by the renowned architect Sinan. During the Bosnian conflict most of the old town and the Bridge which had stood for 400 years was destroyed. This has since been rebuilt using a lot of the old materials and the Old Town restored with the support of UNESCO.
Mostar itself is the most popular tourist area in Herzegovina with several bars, restaurants and copious souvenir shops. We were able to spend a bit of time here taking in the ambience and the local beer of course!
It was time to head back to Sarajevo and we had been really pleasantly surprised at how beautiful Herzegovina is. It is true the temperature definitely upped a few degrees in this area and it did have a more Mediterranean feel to it. It was a long drive back to Sarajevo and we arrived back at Sarajevo Funky Tours office at 8pm. It had been a long day but we were really glad we had done it. We headed back to our apartment and back into Sarajevo for our last night, grabbing a couple of souvenirs and a bite to eat before heading back for a sleep.
The next morning we were booked on the 10am bus back to Tuzla so we got a taxi back to the bus station. The bus left on time and we got back to Tuzla just before 12. We had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport so we headed back into the town centre. We tried the Bosnian dish Cevapi which is a Pitta with Bosnian skinless finger sausages in it. It was quite interesting but not something we would be keen to try again! A final beer and a look at some local artwork and it was time to head back to the airport 🙁
So our overall view of our trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was that we had a lovely time; the people were really very friendly, it was a really beautiful country and we were glad we had decided to visit. It was clear from some of the areas that the war had really destroyed communities and the locals have spent a long time trying to rebuild their lives, businesses and tourism. Whilst Tuzla appears to not really be on the tourism radar yet it has great potential in the future especially with Wizz air flying there. Sarajevo appeared an accepting multicultural city with something for everyone and Herzegovina was just beautiful. We were glad we visited now as we both agreed that tourism will change it over time; however, there is still the potential for some further future conflicts due to the split leadership of the country.
With regard to the war, it is still unclear to us exactly what was the cause was; I had previously taken an interest in the events in the 90s, would I be able to get clarification from any of the locals? We saw a postcard at the hotel in Tuzla saying how friendly all Bosnians are and how welcoming they are to foreign visitors but it clearly stated: “Don’t mention the war!” Now I’m always happy to follow local advice, disappointing as that particular piece was, however, everyone we spoke to did mention the war and were happy to talk to us about it. So, who started it and why?
I’ll cut straight to the chase, we still have no idea! Most, but not all, of the people we spoke to were Muslims, including the blonde haired, blue eyed, non-head-covering-wearing tour guide we had on our trip to Mostar. It wasn’t even as simple as everyone blaming the other side. There were even stories of some the most horrific incidents of the war, such as a market bombing, being caused by members of their own side. To bring it all to NATO’s attention. We were told that 99.9% of victims at Srebrenica were Muslim, and I believe that to be a verifiable fact, little else about the war was though. People still held Tito as a revered figure, and everyone thought he had done an excellent job of uniting the people of Yugoslavia in his lifetime, even if there were stories of prisoners and people being forced to do hard labour.
We were told that at the time of Tito’s death, Yugoslavia had the third biggest army in the world after the USA and USSR, and both of those countries received blame from various quarters, in terms of interfering, adding to the destabilisation process, taking sides to ensure an end result of a very divided people and a much weakened military resource.
We remain interested, so if anyone has some proven facts on the matter, we’re listening.
Carol & Nigel xx